Web's Popularity Explained: It's Genetic!

Book Review by John Graves

© 1995 John Graves
All Rights Reserved

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

by Steven Pinker
HarperPerennial
ISBN 0-06-097651-9
$14 in softcover
494 pages

"As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world." So begins Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct. If you thought the Web was cool because of the hardware and software, forget it. The Web is cool because of the wetware--your brain.

Language is a universal phenomenon (like the Web), that evolved (like the Web) as a systematic combination of discrete units (like the Web). While Pinker's book does not draw these parallels, I found them irresistible. After all, what is so special about hooking a bunch of networks together so that Web pages can be connected any way we choose? Why do we like the Web so much? Apparently the brain is wired, genetically, to operate in just this manner. Pinker explains that we are born to speak. I'd like to think we are born to surf.

Whether speaking or surfing, our instincts are explained by our base purpose in life: sex, survival and more sex. To make this crystal clear, Pinker distills Darwin's theory of natural selection down to two lines:

1. A part of an organism appears to have been engineered to enhance its reproduction.

2. That organism's ancestors reproduced more effectively than their competitors

When applied to language, we find competitive advantages for both sex and survival. Regarding the survival angle, Pinker quotes George Williams:

We might imagine that Hans and Fritz Faustkeil are told on Monday, "Don't go near the water," and that both go wading and are spanked for it. On Tuesday they are told, "Don't play near the fire," and again they disobey and are spanked. On Wednesday they are told, "Don't tease the saber-tooth." This time Hans understands the message, and he bears firmly in mind the consequences of disobedience. He prudently avoids the saber-tooth and escapes the spanking. Poor Fritz escapes the spanking, too, but for a very different reason.
Thus, the sooner language skills develop, the better.

Regarding the reproductive angle, Pinker notes that "tribal chiefs are often both gifted orators and highly polygynous--a splendid prod to any imagination that cannot conceive of how linguistic skills could make a Darwinian difference."

When applied to the Internet, the analysis is qualitatively the same, but the organisms may be replaced with organizations:

1. A part of an organization appears to have been engineered to enhance its production of value.

2. That organization's ancestors produced value more effectively than their competitors.

Look at the competitive advantages of the Web. For evolution to do its magic, advantages do not have to be great; they just need to exist. As Pinker puts it, "The ability of many ancestors to see a bit better in the past causes a single organism to see extremely well now."

Two things make this Web/language parallel really fascinating. The first is that language is based on a nested series of building blocks. "Sentences and phrases are built out of words, words are built out of morphemes, and morphemes, in turn, are built out of phonemes." The Web adds two new higher levels: domains built out of pages, and pages built out of sentences or phrases.

Using discrete building blocks in ad hoc combinations has tremendous advantages at every level. You get back far more variety than you put in and you get it really fast. A 60,000-word vocabulary does not require the mouth to make 60,000 different noises, only a few dozen phonemes. Speech is normally perceived at ten to fifteen phonemes per second. At the next level up, English permits compound words and has a "derivational" morphology, permitting the creation of new words simply by adding any of several dozen suffixes.

The computational linguist Richard Sproat compiled all the distinct words used in the forty-four million words of text from the Associated Press news stories beginning in mid- February 1998. Up through December 30, the list contained three hundred thousand distinct word forms, about as many as in a good unabridged dictionary. You might guess that this would exhaust the English words that would ever appear in such stories. But when Sproat looked at what came over the wire on December 31, he found no fewer than thirty-five new forms, including instrumenting, counterprograms, armhole, part-Vulcan, fuzzier, groveled, boulder-like, mega-lizard, traumatological and ex-critters.

At the next level up, "the number of sentences that a speaker can deal with in principle is at least 10^20 (a one with twenty zeros after it, or a hundred million trillion)." Is it any wonder that Web vertigo strikes when the endless possibilities of yet higher levels of combination become apparent?

Yet, Pinker makes it clear that the variety is there for a reason. It evolved. He writes:

Evolution often produces spectacular abilities when adversaries get locked into an "arms race," like the struggle between cheetahs and gazelles. Some anthropologists believe that human brain evolution was propelled more by a cognitive arms race among social competitors than by mastery of technology and the physical environment. After all, it doesn't take much brain power to master the ins and outs of a rock or to get the better of a berry. But outwitting and second-guessing an organism of approximately equal mental abilities with non-overlapping interests, at best, and malevolent intentions, at worst, makes formidable and ever- escalating demands on cognition.
The second fascinating aspect of the parallel between the Web and language then is watching the evolution take place on the Web in real time. I am thinking, in particular, of HTML standards and the Web's incredibly rapid transitions. For example:

The Netscape browser for the WWW increased its market share from 0.1% to 64% during the four-month period from August to December 1994 (and the previous market leader, Mosaic, dropped from 73% to 21% in the same period).
[Interactions, April 1995, p. 77]

Mosaic, you may recall, was originally no slouch when it came to "reproducing" effectively. The basic function of Mosaic and Netscape was nearly identical. They occupied the same niche. Mosaic might even be thought of as one of Netscape's "ancestors." But Netscape had competitive advantages and so--boom!-- market dominance.

Aside from any insights the book may hold for the free-for-all taking place on the Internet today, you will find it enjoyable and informative reading. Whenever the material starts to get dry, Pinker brings up discussing sex with Dick Cavett or pulls out a collection of newspaper headlines, called "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim," that provides hilarious examples for his linguistic analysis. Common misconceptions about language and culture get cleared up along the way, permitting the universality and elegance of language to shine through. Here is his conclusion to a chapter on the problems artificial intelligence has with the "viciously complex task" of understanding language:

The complete process of understanding is better characterized by the joke about two psychoanalysts who meet on the street. One says, "Good morning"; the other thinks, "I wonder what he meant by that."

John Graves is a Multimedia Developer in San Diego, California and Webmaster for LearnCD, an Internet domain dedicated to distributing knowledge on multimedia CD-ROM.


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